Hybrid threats are often based on organised covert operations but are visible in everyone’s lives

  • City of Espoo
  • Safety and security
14.9.2021 11.59Updated: 22.9.2021 8.26
Two men and two women are standing in a corridor and looking at the camera.
The coronavirus pandemic has been an opportune time to spread disinformation. This is one of the methods of the hybrid threats. The theme was discussed by the City of Espoo's Chief Security Officer Petri Häkkinen, Research Director Hanna Smith from the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, Professor of Cyber Security Jarno Limnéll and reporter Unna Lehtipuu.Photo: Nina Elfvengren

The term ‘Hybrid Threats’ refers to various ways of undermining our safety – by causing harm, insecurity and instability. The methods to achieve this include spreading disinformation, exerting pressure, terrorism, crime, sabotaging power and water supplies and other critical infrastructure- they may even involve military actions.

But should residents of Espoo be aware and concerned about such threats? After all, are they not usually considered a high-level problem –perhaps political posturing between nations.

“Hybrid threats are caused by external operators, but such an operator may or may not be a state. Furthermore, even when a state is behind a threat, it will try to keep its involvement concealed to prevent being identified as the perpetrator. This will lead to the influencing, interference and destruction taking place at a local level,” says Research Director Hanna Smith from the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats.

If, for example, someone decides to attack our energy supply network, every person in Espoo might have to think of ways to cope without electricity for an extended period.

“We must also pay attention to where we get our ‘news’ from and what sort of information we search for on social media. We should be aware that many people intentionally use these channels in an attempt to influence our thoughts and opinions, in both good and bad ways,” Professor of Cyber Security Jarno Limnéll from Aalto University continues.

The coronavirus pandemic has been an opportune time to spread disinformation. This type of information is used to question the actions of authorities; we have even seen attempts to prove their actions illegal.

“This form of influencing through information that aims to hinder decision-making and the work of individual civil servants is also being used against the City of Espoo,” says the City’s Chief Security Officer, Petri Häkkinen.

Few absolute truths exist, but honesty must be our goal

Right now, public debate in Finland is revolving heavily around the fact that information from different sources about vaccinating children varies considerably, and that some are correct, some less so. A common question these days is what can be trusted. What is true?

“When we look at some of the comments regarding children’s vaccinations, you will notice that they do not even attempt to convey accurate information, which I find worrying. As a representative of academia, I must say that there are hardly any absolute truths. But we must still strive to present information that is as accurate as possible – we must strive to remain honest. And, if a piece of information turns out to be incorrect, we must own up to our mistake. But it is a shame that incorrect, erroneous, untruthful and emotive information is being spread deliberately - particularly if done under an organisation’s name. No wonder we feel slightly confused amidst this major revolution in information technology,” says Limnéll.

Limnéll’s tip for everyone is not to take any information at face value.

“If you encounter an intriguing claim, check where the information came from, where it was published and who is spreading it. With major news items, see what researchers and news sites that you have previously found to be reliable are saying. When you know that these people aim to bring genuine information into light, the information does not need to be perfect – it is enough to know that at least they are trying to be truthful and accurate.”

Smith says that traditionally Finns tended to trust authority figures, but due to the increasing globalisation and digitalisation of the country, people now have access to more information than before.

“We are undergoing major changes, forcing us to learn to take personal responsibility for how we approach information, how we deal with different situations and what we can trust,” Smith says.

Häkkinen also points out the phenomenon of bubbles: for example, on social media people tend to talk more with those who share the same views. This can easily bolster our prejudices and any inaccurate notions we may have.

Hybrid threats originate from above, but are spread locally

Where is the line between taunting and a real threat? When are we dealing with freedom of expression and differences in opinion versus outright dangerous hybrid threats?

“When it comes to hybrid threats, there is always an external operator involved. A number of internal operators, aiming to undermine and harm the decision-making authorities and other such entities, exist too. But a threat is created when an outsider is operating under a false identity and negatively affecting people’s opinions on social media, for example, or when they gain access to our energy network or even private individuals’ lives. This means that the external operator can alter the natural polarisation and transform it into something unhealthy, a mixture of hybrid threats,” Hanna Smith explains.

Once the seed of doubt has been sown and people begin to question the reliability of media, for example, these external operators will believe there to be enough locals who take the bait and start spreading the disinformation. A critical element at that point will be how strong community spirit is amongst the local residents, say those of Espoo.

“If the community spirit begins to wane so that people no longer know their neighbours or parents and schools no longer work together, it will provide perfect conditions for someone to wreak havoc, to gain access to decision-making and to steer our daily lives in a direction none of us would want to go in,” Smith warns.

Skilful communications with sufficient resources improve safety

Finnish society favours pragmatism and tends to improve safety by building zebra crossings and hiring more police officers. However, Jarno Limnéll points out that in addition to these important physical-world elements, safety is nowadays first and foremost about the way we feel. Communications play a vital role in this and their importance will only increase.

“If we believe that the City of Espoo’s duty is to serve its residents, then we must invest more in our communications. After all, the coronavirus pandemic will not be the last crisis that we ever encounter. When the next one comes along, our residents must be able to trust that the City’s communications have sufficient resources, skilled people and the latest information at their disposal. The information may not be perfect during a crisis, but I believe that for the future of safety and security in Espoo, reliable information is key,” Limnéll says.

Safety is freedom, preparation is wisdom

“Safety and security is not just about threats and risks, but also about the freedom to act and to be a positive enabler,” Limnéll points out.

“As long as Espoo remains safe, it will be a very nice and comfortable place to live. However, on the flip side there are threats and risks. Therefore, preparation is prudent. The better prepared we are to encounter various threatening situations, the better we will manage in the future.”

Here are some concrete preparation tips from experts:

  • Jarno Limnéll: The 72h concept explains what sort of emergency supplies all households should keep, for example to be able to cope without electricity for 72 hours. Read the instructions: 72hours.fi/(external link)
  • Hanna Smith: Get to know your neighbours and surrounding community, and extend your social circles within your local area. Take actively part in things in order to gain a bigger picture. Be prepared, i.e. learn to understand your safety environment and that unexpected things may happen, but you do not need to let them defeat you.
  • Petri Häkkinen: Remember source criticism. Think about who is communicating, why and based on what information. Do not spread false information yourself. Read through the safety information we have compiled on our website (in Finnish). The material is also available as a printed version from the City of Espoo’s customer service points.

Listen to the discussion as a podcast

Listen to the entire discussion as a podcast: on SoundCloud(external link) or Spotify(external link) (in Finnish, duration approx. 30 minutes).

Funding from the EU-HYBNET project

This article, and the podcast, received funding from the EU-HYBNET project (Empowering a Pan-European Network to Counter Hybrid Threats), funded through European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No883054.

The project aims at enriching the existing European networks countering hybrid threats and ensuring long term sustainability. This will be achieved by defining the common requirements of European practitioners’ and other relevant actors in the field of hybrid threats. Ultimately, this can fill knowledge gaps, deal with performance needs, and enhance capabilities on research, innovation and training endeavours concerning hybrid threats.

EU-HYBNET will monitor developments in research and innovation activities as applied to hybrid threats; so to indicate priorities for innovation uptake and industrialisation and to determine priorities for standardisation for empowering the Pan-European network to effectively counter hybrid threats.

EU-HYBNET will establish conditions for enhanced interactions with practitioners, industry, and academia for a meaningful dialogue and for increasing membership in the network.

For more information: https://euhybnet.eu(external link).